France Gourdon 2000.11.19 - 11.25

Périgord Cro-Magnon Paintings

Périgord is an area with over 100 known caves with prehistoric etchings and paintings dating from 12,000-17,000 years ago. 7 are open to the public.

The most famous cave is Lascaux. Discovered in 1940 and opened to the public in 1948, Lascaux was closed 15 years later because green fungus, caused by carbon dioxide and condensation from the breath of tourists, formed over the paintings. A replica called Lascaux II was built to display near-identical samples of paintings in Lascaux. Although realistic, our interest was dampened by the fact that they are reproductions.

More remarkable were Grotte des Combarelles and Grotte de Font de Gaume. Both caves are open to the public year round, though the number of daily visitors is limited to reduce contamination. During high tourist season, the Lonely Planet guide recommends that reservations are made at least one week in advance. The reservation office for both caves is the same: Tel +33-5-5306-8600. A separate reservation must be made for each cave. 

Visiting during the off-season in the cold and rain has its advantages. We had a private tour of Grotte des Combarelles. Most of the painting in Grotte des Combarelles were washed away when the cave was filled with water right after the Ice Age, but 14,000 year old etchings of animals and human figures remain. Our guide said etchings of identical form are found in caves in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine, leading anthropologists to believe that Cro-Magnon people were nomadic and had the ability to travel great distances.

Grotte de Font de Gaume is the only cave open to the public with original 14,000 year old polychrome paintings. Most of the figures are of animals in motion painted on natural rock formations that give them geometric shape. Shading is used to give depth, and layering gives 3-dimensional effect. Artistically, the detail, color, perspective, depth, form, and effects are remarkable for such early paintings.

Tours last about 45 minutes per cave. Photographs are prohibited.

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